Clement Attlee — the mousey, insignificant Post Master General, who grew up to become the Prime Minister for whom the journalists' favourite adjectives were “ruthless” and “ waspish "—was eighty years old last month.
His birthday was greeted with the gushing eulogies which we have come to expect on such occasions. Nobody, it seems, is as popular as the politician who has ridden the strains of office to the extent that he has managed to reach old age. Then he can sit back and cast a weary, benevolent eye upon the men who are struggling with the problems which were once his own everyday burden—an eye perhaps a little sardonic, an eye which perhaps says in its smile that he thinks that he made a better mess of it all than those who are trying to run the show today. The strifes and upsets of his own days of power are forgotten. So are some of the more unpleasant memories of what it meant to be a prominent politician. Forgotten are the dirty jobs, the deceit and the repressions which he had to condone. It is all forgotten, in a rosy glow of congratulation. We have heard it all before and we are accustomed to it all.
We are accustomed, too, to the trumpets from the other side—to the eulogies from the men who call themselves his political opponents. Christopher Hollis, for example, who was Conservative M.P. for Devizes when Attlee was Prime Minister, filled up half a page of The Observer with his birthday praise for the ex-Labour leader. “Plenty To Be Proud About," cried Hollis, “. . . the English people unanimously offer him their congratulations . . . a public institution . . . a great Englishman.” All very cheerful and chummy. All proves that, however much the Tories may shout at the Labour Party—and the Labour Party shout back —across the floor of the House, under the skin they are all jolly good fellows, all pulling the same way. Pretty dashed English, in fact.
The Socialist Standard has something other than congratulations to offer Earl Attlee upon his reaching old age. And we do not praise any other Capitalist politician for any similar reason. We know that the praise, from friend and foe of the old man, only serves to bolster the “great leader” theory, to impress us with the idea that at the head of Capitalisms affairs there is a select band who have the touch of greatness and who safely hold our fortunes in their hands. It is part of the rules of the leadership game that the old, retired men are heaped with congratulations on every possible occasion, which is an indirect way of also congratulating the men who have taken their place and to imply that one day they, too, will be similarly revered. That is why Tories rush into print to wish Attlee well, Labourites to congratulate Churchill, and so on. They are all playing the same game.
The Socialist Standard prefers to remember what Capitalism means to the people of the world and that the Attlees and Churchills work themselves hard to try to maintain a social system which operates directly against the interests of the overwhelming majority of those people. We know that the leaders will lie and betray to protect the interests of their own national ruling class and that, if Capitalism demands it, they will have little trouble with their consciences in sending millions of workers to their deaths. That was how it was before Attlee became Prime Minister. That is how it is today. And that was how it was when he was at Number Ten.
We should not forget that the Labour Party came to power in 1945 on a promise to be different. They did not encourage anyone to believe that they would not improve upon the dismal Tory record of poverty and war which lay in such discredit in 1945. The war had destroyed some well established notions and to that extent the Labour government had a chance to start afresh. They had promised so much and the working class — or enough of them to elect a large majority of M.P.s — had believed them. In 1945 it was up to Attlee and his fellow leaders to deliver the goods. How did they make out?
Even before he became Prime Minister, Attlee knew of the existence of an atom bomb and had agreed that, if the Japanese did not surrender first, the new weapon should be used against them. He still thinks today that he was correct in this decision, although he pleads that at the time he did know of the genetic effects of the bomb and of its fantastic destructive power. One of the popular theories about Attlee (and about a few other politicians as well) is that, because he was a soldier in 1914/18, he is only too well acquainted with the horrors of war and can therefore be relied upon to work his hardest for a peaceful world. Like so many other similar theories, this one is quite worthless. When Capitalism needed it, Attlee could conveniently tuck away his memories and agree to the unleashing of the mass killer bomb, the most horrible weapon the world had ever seen, which made the trenches look like a kid’s firework display. And he could coldly justify his decision on military and strategic grounds.
Let us take the point further. If Attlee did not know, before the bomb was dropped, of its power and its genetic effects, what did he think about it after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when everyone realised that this was a weapon the like of which we had not seen before? Did he step back appalled? Did he regret his decision? Exactly the opposite. It was the Attlee government which set on foot the programme for the manufacture of a British nuclear bomb and of the missiles to carry it. Somewhere along the way, of course, this programme has gone awry and the independent nuclear force which the Labour government tried to establish for British Capitalism now relies heavily upon American resources. But that does not alter the fact that they tried to get it, and their record is the blacker for it. (From Washington came an ironical birthday present for Attlee—the decision to cancel the Skybolt missile, which was such a blow to the independent nuclear force which the Attlee government conceived.)
It was the Labour government, too, which took this country into the Korean war and there, if you like, is a typical example of Capitalism’s irony. For the decision to split Korea was arrived at at what were called the Peace Conferences after the war. Now if there is one thing Peace Conferences should be able to do is to make peace. But Capitalism simply does not work that way: “Peace” Conferences only draw out the battle line for the next war. That is what happened in Korea and in Berlin and other parts of the world. Some of these "peace" settlements have caused disputes which might have sparked off the third world war. Attlee pleads now that at the post war conferences the British negotiators got the best deal they could and that the trouble was all caused by the Russians. Yet one reason for having a Labour government, we were told, was that they were supposed to be able to deal with this sort of situation, that they were the men who could talk to the Russians in the language they understood, the men to bring peace to the world. But when it came to it they were as ready as any other government to involve themselves in the diplomacy and the intrigue—and in the end the bloodletting — which Capitalism demands.
There is nothing in the international record of his government for Earl Attlee to feel proud about.
Neither is there anything for him to take pride in in the history of the Labour government at home. Can a party which always claimed to stand for the interests of the working class feel proud of breaking strikes among the men—the dockers and miners, for example—who in some part built their party for them? Can the party which promised prosperity take pride in the austerity, the wage freeze and the other restrictions which they imposed during their term? Can the party which fought against the Emergency Powers Act, when it was introduced as a Bill before the House of Commons, look back proudly upon the memory of themselves wielding the coercive powers of that very Act? All these things, and many more, were the work of the Attlee administration. There is nothing for the aged Earl to feel proud about in them.
Nobody should think, of course, that the record of the Labour government is exclusively Attlee’s responsibility, or that things would have been different with someone else as Prime Minister. No government has ever done any better than Labour did —no government, in other words, has been able to run Capitalism to the benefit of the working class, who are the mass of its people. The point about the Labour Party is that they promised—and they still promise—that they can run Capitalism in that way. And they call their sort of Capitalism Socialism.
Attlee himself did his job with an arid efficiency. In the Cabinet he was a model chairman. To his colleagues he was an aspere, ruthless boss. More than one minister lost his office with startling abruptness under the Attlee axe. ". . . most of the people I had to get rid of." said Attlee later, “Took it very well." And to Harold Laski, then chairman of the Labour Party: ". . . the constant flow of speeches from and interviews with you are embarrassing . . . a period of silence on your part would be welcome. Yours ever, Clem.”
The ending of that letter is typical. Attlee covered all his comings and goings with a cloak of modesty. Whatever job he had to do for British Capitalism was always put through with a cold self-effacement, a deliberate avoidance of rhetoric. When he told the 1940 conference of the Labour Party that they had brought about the end of the Chamberlain government and had agreed to serve in the wartime coalition under Churchill, he did so in such bleak terms that Harold Laski said that he felt “as though the cook and kitchen maid have been telling us that they sacked the butler.” Attlee delights in making such important statements casually; it is one of the characteristics which his eulogisers love so well. Francis William’s book, A Prime Minister Remembers, is full of this sort of stuff: "It was quite obvious they (the Russians) were going to be troublesome . . . It (Berlin) was quite a danger. But it was a risk that had to be taken.” And so on. On the evening he became Prime Minister, he was driven to Buckingham Palace, not in a Rolls or even a Bentley, but in a small family car, with his wife as his chauffeur.
When we consider all this, and the fact that his job required him to be anything but self-effacing, we come upon one of the clues to Attlee’s rise to power. He was nothing if not an extremely shrewd administrator of Capitalism. For him. public modesty was a weapon, a badge, a trade mark, like Churchill’s cigars and V-sign. He could not carry off the flamboyant, capering politician. So he made a conceit out of modesty. Unusual, perhaps, but it worked.
Attlee got the top job. And when he had got it he did everything that British Capitalism required of him. Very often he had to do things which he must have known were directly against the interests and the safety of the very people who had raised him to power. But he never flinched. He did his job, in his dry, inflexible way, and British Capitalism ticked on.
If it is any consolation to him, let us say that he deserves the thanks and the congratulations which the organs of Capitalist opinion have heaped upon him.
A couple of brief mentions of when Clement Attlee and the SPGB crossed paths.
“The Russian debacle is rather appalling but quite explicable. Lenin and Trotsky appear to me to be of the SPGB type or the wilder types of the SDP.”
Clement Attlee in a letter to his brother Tom, 20 March 1918 (quoted in 'Clem Attlee. A Biography' by Francis Beckett, 2001).
"One journalist came hurrying to learn about the Party from a strange little incident at one of the Prime Minister’s press conferences. He had asked a question which, by coincidence, implied the Party’s argument against the Labour Party. Attlee had swung round angrily and said: ‘I know you — SPGB !’ The journalist had never heard of the SPGB before, but he could not wait to discover why Attlee had been so sensitive. Not all the Labour leaders took the Party quite so seriously, however. In 1946 Groves debated with Sir Waldron Smithers, and in the retiring-room before it began the old Conservative confided that Herbert Morrison had said to him: ‘Be careful of that bunch, Sir Waldron — they’re not real socialists, you know.’ Sir Waldron had taken the words to heart, but the Party members for once appreciated irony."
(From The Monument, the story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain by Robert Barltrop, 1975)